Of making many books there is no end

Announcement

THINGS THAT HAVE CHANGED SINCE I LAST HAD A REGULAR, ONGOING ARTISTIC PRACTICE THAT WAS SILLY AND PLAYFUL AND EVER-PRESENT

-got out of a relationship that had become increasingly abusive (destabilized sense of subjective truth)
-finished art school (no more community of other creative peers to discuss and share work)
-started actively using the internet a lot (this can be TROUBLE!!. this is an ECHO CHAMBER.)
-had to make a living as a young humanities graduate in a recession (i.e. minimum wage –> soul drain/hate to complain)
-worked on making a marriage work instead of making my work and making my work work (the history of women?)

i take responsibility for this shit and don’t blame anybody for my own choices. but i am getting sick of not being grounded, and none of this happens in vacuum!

Fuck the kyriarchy!
Fuck the culture of academic legitimacy!
Fuck the internet echo chamber!
Fuck late-late capitalism!
Fuck being a wife!

I renounce these things!!!

and then this was the moment when Jaymee Martin surrendered to her own instability and lost control over her public presentation, and in so doing reclaimed her own voice. Because if she didn’t say anything, nobody would know the difference (or how she was dying inside), and because if she tried to make what she said palatable for the system that shuffled her into this position in the first place, they would say the same shit anyway because that is how they are designed to work.  “biotch”

Filed under: The Contradiction, you have renounced

“keep the briars out,” they say.

You cannot live and keep free of briars.

Filed under: reconciliation as a work of art?, The Contradiction

What can be said about Safia Ishag?

Before these last few weeks of my life careened into unfamiliar extremes, I wanted to write about Safia Ishag, whose video I posted right around when shit really started hitting the fan (if I make it through this essay, it will be a sign that everything is fine). If you watch the video, which you absolutely should do, you will likely understand why it is not the easiest subject to address. I don’t know anything about the democracy movement in Sudan; I don’t think I even know very much about the Sudan really at all. To write about it, I felt that I’d need to do some real research, and then shit hit the fan, and school started up again. Yet I want to come back to her because it needs to be talked about and time is passing. So even though I may not have the informational background to discuss the context in which the video arose, I can talk about what I do know, which is how powerfully the video and this gorgeous human being struck me and (I may fail at this part) where we might be able to go from there.

But first you must take a walk with me down memory lane:

“The Politics of” Language

1.         I’m an art student at UCLA in Fall 2007. I go to the Francis Alÿs exhibit “Politics of Rehearsal” at the Hammer Museum. Here at this show you see a video of Francis Alÿs pushing a block of melting ice across the streets of Mexico City. You see a video of a stripper taking her clothes off and putting them back on again, over and over. You see a video of villagers in South America shoveling dirt from a mountain onto a new, ever-increasing metaphorical mound of earth. You see a few other sparse, non-verbal sorts of documentary artworks whose specifics I don’t remember. Put together, this constituted a big deal; the chair of the department curated the show and wrote the catalog essay, sending an implicit message that these types of formal gestures touching on the imagery of “politics” abstractly, coolly, cerebrally, were acceptable, were sanctioned, were fashionable.

2.         I am in South Korea in Summer 2008. I have been accepted into a program called the “Global Institute: Experiments in Transnational Education” at the Gwangju Biennale, organized by the head (famous!) curator Okwui Enwezor. There are forty of us at the Global Institute, 22 Korean art students, 18 international young artists and curators. For two weeks, we will attend full days of talks by the Biennale’s participants and organizers. Okwui opens with a lecture called “The Politics of Spectacle,” about mega-exhibitions, globalism, the 1980 democratic uprising in Gwangju, the anniversary of May ’68, and Edward Saïd’s subjective political gesture of throwing a rock across the Lebanese-Israeli border.

A few days later we have a lecture by two LA-based collaborators; I’m looking forward to seeing some Californians. Unfortunately their talk is completely impenetrable and I can see the rest of the students’ eyes harden as the slides impassively click by. This is the implicit, unquestioned dance of the visiting artist’s lecture: PowerPoint, big words, then open for questions, oh there’s no questions. They are showing us their installation piece for the Biennale, inspired by Edward Saïd’s rock-throw into Israel that Okwui talked about.  They’ve built a small room in which the viewer stands, the outside walls show a pixilated image of Saïd throwing the rock. Inside there is a projection of different texts about Edward Saïd; meanwhile an automatic baseball pitching machine hurls softballs at the projection over and over from the outside, re-staging a symbol of the political act, thumping against the projected words. Thump, thump, over and over, meaning something, something “about” something, something Interesting, something Political, Post-colonial, Critical.

Now it is Saturday, we are halfway through and we are having a group discussion with Okwui and the rest of the curators, again about Biennial Culture and Cold War geopolitics, this is what they are choosing to talk about, choosing to include us in. They use phrases like “developing interlocutors across boundaries of difference.” I assume that is what they hope is happening in this program, but I’m not sure whose interests it’s supposed to serve, if it is happening at all. If we are crossing any boundaries of difference, they are horizontal, not vertical. I am beginning to wonder why we are even here. There has been talk of social change, but only insofar as it can be put back into the exhibition hall, between the four white walls of the gallery, and settled upon and moderated by curators. Thump, thump. The softball hits the wall again, social change becomes ornamental, words become agenda. A Korean student raises his hand. Through the interpreter, he attempts to explain his confusion over his specific role at the Global Institute, or even the Global Institute’s role in the Biennale (no mention in the exhibition). “Am I here as an extra actor?” he asks.

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Safia Ishag Mohamed

Saw her image almost a month ago on a flyer as I walked out the front door of my school, registering the words “activist” “Sudan” “art student” and “speaks out.” I am embarrassed to say that the first thing to hit me was surprise at realizing there are art students in Sudan. I’ve wasted time in the past self-flagellating over how bourgeois and pointless it seems to dwell on Art Student Problems, how separated from “the real world” it seems. But…there are art students in the Sudan. “Art students are everywhere,” I thought. Art students are a fact of reality, are a part of the social world.*

Had a chat with Howard while in Charlottesville, and she came up again. The flyer. Art students are everywhere. Went back to Nicolas’s sublet and had a few hours before he came home. Googled “activist” “Sudan” “art student” and, after no luck, tried my best to remember her name: Safia. There she was on Youtube, looking downcast, “rape” in the title of the video. I could feel my breath being sucked out of my body as she spoke.

After watching her a few times, transfixed by her unbelievable resilience, her fearlessness, her eloquence, thinking “she is amazing” over and over and crying, I realized that the juxtaposition of  “Safia Ishag’s Rape” above her despondent facial expression misrepresents the video entirely. (To be honest, I thought “a dude probably did that.”) Certainly the brutal experience of her rape instigated and catalyzed the video’s making, but the video itself speaks to something far beyond that. It is not only an account of Safia’s rape. It is a documentation of her, as an artist, harnessing the tremendous amount of courage it takes to have a voice, when every goddamn thing surrounding you is conspiring against you speaking out at all. Because maybe speaking out will change a system that is hurting people. Because not speaking out means letting them rob you of your humanity, when they have already taken so much.

And not only is gathering that strength and flexing that voice an incredible act of political agency, but that is also an unequivocally artistic act. Not an artistic act “about” politics—it does not distance itself from a subject and then reflect on it abstractly through layers of metaphor or subject matter that has “the look” of politics. Here art and politics have a completely inseparable function. It’s not a photograph of a fire hanging idly on a wall for us to admire and mull over. She’s lighting a match that can burn the whole place down, because that’s what it takes to survive.

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The Song-and-Dance Routine of the Perpetual “About”

As my thoughts about Safia lingered and took different shapes, I began to wonder, if this Youtube video is an artistic act, then can it be Art as we conventionally define and understand it? And if it is Art, will anyone in the art world ever say anything about it?**

At face value, Safia Ishag’s Youtube video is in many ways the exact opposite of Art. For example, if you take the videos by Francis Alÿs as a prototype for Art (nobody these days could persuasively argue that they are Not Art), you would have a difficult case to make if you compared the two:

Francis Alÿs:

  • Videos are in a museum exhibit in a major American city.
  • They are supported with the theoretical backing of a curator who is also chair of a prestigious art school. They are imbued with currency and can be bought and sold.
  • Francis is a white male from a European country. He is “widely considered to be among the most important artists working today.”
  • He has elected out of his own choosing to live in a non-European country that experiences poverty and violence, and inflects his work with the imagery of this environment. This makes it even more political-looking.
  • It is also political because “Politics” is in the title of the show.

Safia Ishag:

  • Video is on Youtube, an outlet accessible to almost anyone in the world.
  • It is pretty much completely off the radar of the Western media, let alone the art world. It has no currency and no one has heard of her. It can never be bought or sold.
  • Safia is a young Muslim woman of color in an African nation. She is not even called an artist— still just an art student.
  • She was born into one of the most notoriously violent and unstable countries in the world. But it is not fetishized here. It is not even pictured here.
  • People tend to avoid things with “rape” in the title and think the Sudan is a far-off place where there aren’t even any art students.

The problem here, though, is not that Safia Ishag’s video is not Art as we conventionally define it. The problem is that our conventional definitions of Art actively bar things like Safia’s video from ever entering into the discussion. When it comes to works like this, who don’t have the “look” of Political Art yet whose aesthetics are fundamentally inseparable from their enactment of political agency, we have no language to discuss them; we are literally at a loss. We have no framework of understanding works that actually have the potential to change anything or, to use Safia’s words, to “send a message.” We can only talk about things that treat suffering or political struggle at a distance and can enter comfortably back into our discourse, formalizing it and making it palatable for the system we participate in. We take the “look” of Politics, or the “Politics of [some vague buzzword]” as sufficient enough for us to feel like we’ve done our job as reasonably concerned liberal-ish Global citizens.

Or, to use this 1945 Ad Reinhardt cartoon as an illustration, we are continually stuck in the top position, the “ha ha.” We theorize and jargonize and back-pat around artworks that are “about” issues, issues that are indeed often rooted in politics (globalization, feminism, post-colonialism, etc.; because of genuine concern or because it’s fashionable, who can say). But we keep those issues in a space where art is “about” them. Sure, postmodernism has made it understood that there is no singular “about,” and admittedly has at least brought these issues to the table. Yet the predominance of the perpetual “about” is firmly, stubbornly rooted, and we seem pretty content with complying with and participating in the discursive mechanisms that keep it that way. We dance around our artworks, pointing and positing towards their issues and concerns, discussing their “abouts” (in magazines, in art schools, in artists’ statements, in catalog essays, in lectures), so that afterwards we can go home safe from them ever pointing back at us. Art can never implicate us, or “do” anything. It can only ever “be about” anything.

My arguments may sound like the radical positions of Chris Gilbert or this open letter to the curators of the Istanbul Biennial, and parts of me do admire their stances (especially the first paragraph of that open letter!). But before anyone*** starts chiming in with the inevitable “There is no outside”-s, I want to emphasize that I am not proposing an all-or-nothing.  In fact, I would argue that this sort of “there is no outside” all-or-nothing logic that these types of arguments precipitate on both sides is part of the current architecture of the discourse itself. Radical attempts like Chris Gilbert’s to “get outside” are seen as overly idealistic or just kind of awkward, mostly because extreme politics is unfashionable compared with the vogue of abstract, art-jargon-y politics. Yet sometimes these posturings are viewed skeptically for good reason, as in Pauline’s comment:

“Even if I share his impatience with the fuzzier end of such fashions, doesn’t presenting the case like this just foster the same argumentative techniques that produce rhetorical blackmail like the warmongerer’s ‘If you’re not with us you’re against us?’”

And so we reach an impasse, a theoretical deadlock, a feedback loop. There is no outside. The rock hits the wall again, thump thump. The song-and-dance routine continues. In Ian Burn’s words, “the principles of modern art [have] trapped in a panoptical prison of our own making.” How can anything ever change?

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Readymade Discourse, Readymade Language

My thinking on institutions, the language of art discourse, and contemporary art-historical deadlock really started in art school when I read Howard’s book Art Subjects: Making Art in the American University. In it he makes a mind-bogglingly-crucial-yet-frustratingly-underdiscussed link between the role of language, the university training of artists, and the rise of postmodernism. In the contemporary models of art school (as opposed to the classic Academy model), he writes, “consciousness of the field is what is now taught as art.” Rather than cultivate skills or a practice, we learn how to position ourselves as Artists in a discourse.

Howard links this shift to Duchamp’s readymades— objects that, for the first time basically since the beginning of “Art” in the Western world, were considered Art not because of any inherent visual characteristics, but because the institutions and discourse that surrounded them declared that they were Art. Any paradigm shifts that had occurred before this were still confined to the visual realms of painting and sculpture, or what Duchamp called retinal art. For the first time and in a big way, readymades undermined and uprooted this precondition: A urinal is just a urinal, unless it is on a pedestal in a gallery and signed and dated and called Art by someone who is an Artist. Without having to take the retinal as a given, art could be anything at all— and with the requirement of a completely new and different set of criteria to ground our definition of art, it became the structures of our discourse that govern our understanding of what counts. Or to quote Howard quoting Benjamin Buchloh about conceptual art, “the definition of the aesthetic becomes on the one hand a matter of linguistic convention and on the other the function of both a legal contract and an institutional discourse (a discourse of power rather than taste).” It becomes a matter of language and discourse, of institutions and power. (This is called postmodernism, by the way.)

Starting with the post-war explosion of the MFA, guess where is now the primary site where that discourse is learned and internalized and inscribed and invested in and entered into? Art school!

Students must produce themselves as part of, and as an already narrativized position on, art history as a professional discourse. … The task of art schools across the country is to provide a language that we can speak together as professionals, and to ensure that its concerns will be the students’ concerns. The student’s task, like that of his works, is to take—and to mark—his or her place. (italics mine)

In order to gain a place and an identity as an Artist in a professional discourse, we must invest belief in and replicate this shared language. This language marks the discourse’s boundaries of power, who it includes and excludes, what counts as legitimate and acceptable and discussable, and what forms are permitted.

The art department provides its students with a disciplinary knowledge, with “issues,” as well as tacit knowledge of the rules and orders of practice. It is part of a network of institutions—galleries, museums, granting agencies, journals, and the like—that define the boundaries of the field, construct the concerns or shared values of the community, and circulate its discourse—the language that marks its speakers as members of a community.

If one refuses to speak the language for whatever reason, or if one never learns it to begin with, one jeopardizes his or her place in the discourse. It is impossible to operate outside of the discourse as long as one continues to participate in its structures. The structure of our discourse creates a situation in which “there is no outside.”

The space of the aesthetic can no longer be a critical space; the work of art cannot escape to be somewhere or something else. Marcuse’s thesis that art’s radical possibilities—‘its indictment of the established reality and its invocation of the beautiful image of liberation’—lie ‘precisely in the dimensions where art transcends its social determination and emancipates itself from the given universe of discourse and behavior’ becomes not just unbelievable but also, and more damningly in the modern university, terribly naïve. That version of transcendence has been replaced by another one. The works of postmodernism in the university thematize their positions and reflect their knowing better, letting those of us who know, know that they too are vigilant. They will not be the unknowing victims of history or theory, just necessarily, historically, victims. This thinking, or outthinking, the end of each attempt now operates as transcendence.

As fluffily romantic as transcendence sounds, and as cool as it makes you to outthink it or say that it’s impossible, the part of me that is an artist believes that it is actually the entire point. As long as we take the current Discourse as an established fact, as long as we comply with its structures in order to have a place or a voice, the status quo will never change, and this is a big fucking problem. Art will continue as a politically impotent song-and-dance routine of issues and “about”s. We as Artists will continue to hinge our identities on the basis of existing criteria rather than changing and challenging and creating those criteria ourselves.

Duchamp’s introduction of Discourse into art continues to reign supreme, and we have found ourselves trapped in its logic [logos] as a result, like Wittgenstein’s fly in the fly bottle. Rather than the retinal, it is now Discourse that we take as an unquestioned given—or, if you like, an étant donné. Our language itself has become a Readymade. If Duchamp can overturn the entire basis of Art up to the 20th century with a urinal, why must it be naïve to think that there can be something beyond our Discourse as we know it?

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“BUT THROUGH REALIZING OUR SOCIALIZATION / MIGHT WE BE ABLE TO TRANSFORM OUR REALITY?”

In September 2008, only a couple of weeks after I got back from Korea, I abandoned my place in the Discourse. I fled Los Angeles, moved to Charlottesville, got a minimum wage job and got married. I now attend school to become an ESL teacher, and have been pleasantly surprised to encounter work in sociolinguistics that resonates strikingly with my experiences in art school/the art world. In particular, James Paul Gee’s writing about language and literacy gives an extremely readable yet freakishly applicable description of what he calls “Discourse with a capital ‘D’”:

Being in a Discourse is being able to engage in a particular sort of “dance” with words, deeds, values, feelings, other people, objects, tools, technologies, places and times so as to get recognized as a distinctive sort of who doing a distinctive sort of what. Being able to understand a Discourse is being able to recognize such “dances.”

… There are a number of points that one can make about Discourses:

  • Discourses … crucially involve a set of values and viewpoints … about who is an outsider and who isn’t, often who is “normal” and who isn’t.
  • Discourses are resistant to internal criticism and self-scrutiny, since uttering viewpoints that seriously undermine them defines one as being outside them. The Discourse itself defines what counts as acceptable criticism.
  • Discourses are intimately related to the distribution of social power and hierarchical structure in society, which is why they are always and everywhere ideological. Control over certain Discourses can lead to the acquisition of social goods (money, power, status) in a society.

Gee situates his discussion of Discourses within a larger argument about the concept of literacy. To Gee, literacy simply means “Mastery of a Secondary Discourse” (Secondary as opposed to our Primary Discourses, which we all acquire in the home and culture and context of our upbringing). In contrast to widely held, overwhelmingly positive views of literacy, here it is presented dualistically as a double-edged sword, both as a liberator and a weapon. Literacies can both oppress (i.e. Spanish monks teaching scripture to Indian slaves at the California missions) and empower (i.e. Frederick Douglass secretly teaching himself how to read)—it depends on what you do, or are able to do, with them.

Paulo Freire, perhaps the most important literacy worker in the 20th century, earlier wrote that the emancipatory potential of literacy manifests through gaining the educational tools to recognize the nature of one’s oppression. This process of recognition is what he terms conscientiziçao, an activation of consciousness. (Think consciousness-raising groups of the Feminist movement, where, by gathering and sharing stories of similar injustices they faced, women realized that “the personal is political.”) As Freire states, “In order for the oppressed to be able to wage the struggle for their liberation, they must perceive the reality of oppression not as a closed world from which there is no exit, but as a limiting situation which they can transform.” Contrasting with the “there is no outside” mentality, this notion of consciousness and transformation calls to mind the different headings within Ian Burn’s “panoptical prison” essay, that, when read consecutively, form a statement: “WHILE WE HAVE BEEN ADMIRING OUR NAVELS /  WE HAVE BEEN CAPITALIZED AND MARKETED / BUT THROUGH REALIZING OUR SOCIALIZATION / MIGHT WE BE ABLE TO TRANSFORM OUR REALITY?”

Realizing our socialization is more than anything a process of literacy—of understanding how Discourse in Art can function as a weapon, closing off any potential for radical self-questioning or the challenging of the status quo, barring voices outside its structures from being heard. To Ian Burn, “transforming our reality is no longer a question of just making more art, it’s a matter of realizing the enormous social vectoring of the problem, and opportunistically taking advantage of what social tools we have.” What more potent social tool do we have than our own language, the basis of all human interaction and communication?

Language does not only have to function as a marker of inclusion and power—it also doubles as the primary vehicle through which people exercise agency. Safia Ishag speaks because in doing so, she articulates her humanity, because it might inspire other women to do the same, because to speak is to access power. With that in mind, I am not arguing for something beyond language itself, but rather for our language to open up to change and to being changed. More than anything I am arguing that there is a difference between Discourse and dialogue.

The current architecture of Art Discourse is structured as monolithic, given, and “just the way it is”: “there is no outside.” Dialogue, on the other hand, is what Freire characterizes as praxis, both reflection and action, not one without the other; it is the enactment of agency, both through saying and doing, like Safia’s video. “There is no true word that is not at the same time a praxis. Thus, to speak a true word is to transform the world.”

Freire then provides what could be a perfect description of “political” art:

An unauthentic word, one which is unable to transform reality, results when dichotomy is imposed upon its constitutive elements. When a word is deprived of its dimension of action, reflection automatically suffers as well; and the word is changed into idle chatter, into verbalism, into an alienated and alienating “blah.” It becomes an empty word, one which cannot denounce the world, for denunciation is impossible without a commitment to transform, and there is no transformation without action.

His juxtaposition against this sounds more like Chris Gilbert’s and Resistanbul’s reverse-attempts to decry the system:

On the other hand, if action is emphasized exclusively, to the detriment of reflection, the word is converted into activism. The latter—action for action’s sake—negates the true praxis and makes dialogue impossible. Either dichotomy, by creating unauthentic forms of existence, creates also unauthentic forms of thought, which reinforce the original dichotomy.

Instead, dialogue uses language not as a form of posturing for power over others, but rather as

the encounter between people, mediated by the world, in order to name the world. … If it is in speaking their word that people, by naming the world, transform it, dialogue imposes itself as the way by which they achieve significance as human beings. Dialogue is thus an existential necessity. … It is an act of creation; it must not serve as a crafty instrument for the domination of one person by another.

… Dialogue cannot exist, however, in the absence of a profound love for the world and for people. The naming of the world, which is an act of creation and re-creation, is not possible if it is not infused with love. Love is at the same time the foundation of dialogue and dialogue itself. … Because love is an act of courage, not of fear, love is commitment to others.

Safia’s video is an act of courage, of love, and of praxis. It is not “about”–it says AND does; it is an existential necessity. In our current Discourse it will go unseen, as we continue to dance around artworks, speaking our shared professional language, congratulating ourselves for being “political” even though we enact nothing. The rock will keep hitting the wall.

I don’t know if my call for dialogue for is possible in our current cultural milieu. I just hope that in the meantime Safia will continue to speak. And I hope that more people struggling to enter the Discourse begin to think critically about its structures, will begin to wonder if anything will ever change, will begin to ask who is serving who. Will begin to think that changing our language not only possible, but necessary. Will recognize that calling for a critical, dialogical art is not naïve. Will, after realizing their socialization, have the courage to raise their hands and ask the question, “Am I here as an extra actor?”

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Stuff I read and/or excessively block-quoted:

Howard Singerman, Art Subjects: Making Artists in the American University

Ian Burn, The Art Market: Affluence and Degradation

James Paul Gee, Social Languages and Literacies: Ideology in Discourses

Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Also, this Martha Rosler essay and this thread at Mute.

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*Get over yourself, Martin.

**If you Google “Safia Ishag,” the only people who seem to be talking about it are Arabic-speaking and African bloggers and journalists. I feel extremely lucky to have caught a glimpse of the flyer, since it doesn’t really seem to be surfacing in our media.

***This is assuming anyone will read this

Filed under: "Officialdom", a world where not everyone looks just like you, dude get over it Martin, The Contradiction, tough and unmoveable as the soviet bloc, you are part of the problem

IAN BURN why did you drown.

“Often-heard remarks implying that it is not enough to be ‘just an artist’ are merely public admissions that, as a role in society, ‘artist’ is a sterile one. …This is clearly reflected in the desperation of more and more artists to escape their political impotence, in their attempts to reconcile the paradoxicality of their lives wrought by being hopefully ‘radical’ in politics but necessarily ‘conservative’ in art.

The inside story of this is that there is no ‘radical theory’ in the arts today, and there can be none while the present state of affairs prevails.  That also explains something about the extreme poverty of ‘critical theory,’ since a critical theory which sets itself the task of revealing the various forms of conflict and exploitation needs to be informed by some (prospect of) radical theory, something which denies the current ideology and economic class values embodied in modern art.  Current and recent art criticism has become at best a means of policing and regulating, at worst a sheer celebration of the impotence of the status quo.

In this light, most of the chatter about ‘plurality’ in the contemporary scene comes over as so much liberal claptrap.  What use is a sort of ‘freedom’ which can have no other effect than reinforcing the status quo?”

Filed under: The Contradiction, you are part of the problem, ,

Break-A-Way // The Contradiction, agency, & girl group music

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Irma Thomas, Break-a-Way

I made my reservation

I’m leavin’ town tomorrow

I’ll find somebody new and

there’ll be no more sorrow

That’s what I do each time, but I can’t follow through

I can’t break away, though you made me cry

I can’t break away, I can’t say goodbye

I’ll never, ever break away from you no no

“The oppressed suffer from the duality which has established in their innermost being.  They discover that without freedom they cannot exist authentically.  Yet, although they desire authentic existence, they fear it.  They are at one and the same time themselves and the oppressor whose consciousness they have internalized.  The conflict lies in the choice between being wholly themselves or being divided; between ejecting the oppressor within or not ejecting them; between solidarity or alienation; between following prescriptions or having choices; between being spectators or actors; between acting or having the illusion of acting through the action of the oppressors; between speaking out or being silent, castrated in their power to create and re-create, in their power to transform the world.  This is the tragic dilemma of the oppressed which their education must take into account.”

–Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

***

This song is imprinted somewhere at the very core of my body. HER VOICE. It is a train barreling forward on its tracks, no wavering, no pausing, forward, singular, I don’t think she even breathes.  And I hear her, I experience her, not as a singer of a song, it’s her, as a fabric of robust living tissue. I feel it resonating. I feel it in her biography. I feel it, to a much milder yet somehow deeply penetrating extent, in my own autobiography, in the spaces where words are never enough.

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Claudine Clark, Party Lights

I see the lights I see the lights

I see the party lights

They’re red and blue and green

Everybody in the crowd is there

but you won’t let me make the scene

***

“As a network of discourse and institutions, an accretion of beliefs, a field of positions, an amalgam of historical effects, [the art world] is fully ideological in that it orders and effects real relations, it hovers above and around them, determining, forecasting. It seems fully adequate, after all, it includes the names and work you already know, those names you can call to mind, can compare yourself to, have an opinion about, someone or something you need to learn and teach. Indeed, teaching it and learning it are crucial, how it is transmitted, how it is continued. Students are, once again, both its most important product and its target audience, its believers. One could say, to use a little psychoanalytic theory … that the art world is always as Freud described the unconscious, ein andere Schauplatz— that other show place or the place of the Other’s show. If the art world is in some sense elsewhere, that does not mean that its boundaries, its inclusions and exclusions are not felt.”

–Howard Singerman in his essay Excellence and Pluralism, a history of the UCLA Art Department

***

Her voice is cracking with desperation, she is stuck in her bedroom, watching a spectacular party take place across the street, begging her mom to let her go to it. She’s not singing to us about it; she’s singing directly to the person who has the power to keep her confined. The song isn’t called “Stuck in My Room” or “I’m Grounded;” it’s named after the flashes of the over-there, the not-here. What is most important is elsewhere. She can see the over-there, she is reaching out for it like an asymptote: red and blue and green, viewing her own powerlessness reflected through the visual flickers of a world to which she has no access. I can’t help but poeticize this song to indulge my own narrative, but I must also say that when you consider the overwhelming lack of a voice that black girls had in 1962, you can understand why Susan Douglas wrote that her howling “sounded like someone who had been in Alcatraz for twenty years and would simply explode if she didn’t get out.”

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The Exciters, He’s Got the Power

He makes me do things I don’t wanna do

He makes me say things I don’t wanna say

And even though I wanna break away

I can’t stop saying I adore him

Can’t stop doin’ things for him

He’s got the power, the power of love over me

( me memmeemememmee)

***

“A system of valuing songs that insists on their honesty and an absence of mediation in the circumstances of their creation cannot apply to songs by and for girls, because girl culture and girl identity are always built on foundations laid by others. Accepting the roles and images offered to them and experimenting with prefabricated identities are fundamental strategies for girls’ self-fashioning and should not be dismissed as submissive and derivative. Summarizing Laura Mulvey’s important writings on women as objects of a male gaze, Valerie Walkerdine [writes], ‘[Girls’] fantasies are shaped entirely by the available representations: there are no fantasies that originate with girls, only those projected onto them.’

… Dismissing girl groups on the grounds that they are like windup dolls whose material is forced upon them by other, more creative minds ignores the parallels between girl music and girl identity in its largest sense. The important question, then, is not whether girls imbibe experiences fabricated for them, but how they do it, and how they make meanings from doing it.”

–Jacqueline Warwick in her book Girl Groups, Girl Culture: Popular Music and Identity in the 1960s

***

She is somewhere between screaming and singing, the drums pounding relentlessly like exclamation points, the backup vocals are street sirens, curling and pulsing. “OH BUT I LOVE HIM,” she paints pleasure in his grip over her, she feels it, she convinces us of it. Like in Break-a-Way, she can’t leave her lover/controller/abuser, even when it makes her do things she doesn’t wanna do, even when she wants to break away; but unlike in Break-a-Way, she’s never even bothered to make plans to leave. She knows she can’t. Because to her, his power is love. So she revels in it.

_________________________________________


Patty and the Emblems, Mixed-Up, Shook-Up, Girl


Am I crying because you left me

Or am I crying because I don’t know what to do?

One day you said we’d never part

Am I sad or am I glad?

I’m a mixed-up, shook-up girl over you

***

more Jacqueline Warwick Girl Groups, Girl Culture:

“… John Berger explores the divided identity that is naturally enacted by females:

To be born a woman has been to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men. The social presence of women has developed as a result of their ingenuity in living under such tutelage within such a limited space. But this has been at the cost of a woman’s being split in two.

Berger’s analysis echoes W.E.B. DuBois’s observations about the experiences of black people in white culture:

It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others… One ever feels this twoness–an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

***

The version I have of this song is live, and I like it a lot better than this version, its shouts and sways of the crowd and of Patty and how she just lets them scream the words “mixed-up, shook-up girl” rather than sing them herself. (Also, I love how “Am I sad or am I glad” does not rhyme whatsoever with the line before it.)

But mostly it means this to me: if you can’t fix the conflict on your own, if you can’t make sense of it or smooth it out, if you can’t make it stop making you cry, if it’s tearing you apart yet you can’t breakaway… whether or not there’s an audience in front of you, whether or not anyone will ever hear you… There is one thing you can do. You can sing the fuck out of the conflict.


____________________________________________

Note: I owe my love of these songs to the ultimate girl-group-of-one, Julia Sull, who shared many of them with me while lying in my bed in Charlottesville, on the same night that Dave Matthews made a remark to Nicolas in a bathroom about eyebrows.

Filed under: at arm's length, The Contradiction,

The beginning

“Action springs not from thought, but from a readiness for responsibility.”  Dietrich Bonhoeffer

A couple of Friday mornings ago I was putting together a bowl of cereal when the radio mentioned it was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s birthday. A theologian, he had spoken out against the Nazi regime, was offered a cushy professorship asylum in New York, got there, realized he was being a coward, went back to Germany, continued to speak out against the Nazis, and was executed two weeks before Hitler’s suicide, 23 days before Germany surrendered. And then, this quotation. Action springs not from thought, but from a readiness for responsibility.

I checked my phone, I’d gotten a text message. From Justin: No word from either Lopez brother about the key to the storage unit. This storage unit in Oakland has held a trove of my artwork since September 2008, since I fled Los Angeles and my identity in the art world, since I fled a dynamic of abuse that had developed between Ernie and me. I’d been in text-message limbo with Justin, our only middleman left, about getting my artwork back, but nothing was working out. Ernie’s brother had the key down south, someone was going to mail it, nobody mailed it, Ernie’s not answering his phone, Justin is too busy himself. I knew I needed these paintings back—they were my identity, essentially; the metaphor of my artwork (my lifeblood) still being held in Ernie’s storage was not lost on me by any means—but I sort of imagined that they’d show up eventually, Justin could bring them down to me, I wouldn’t have to go to any sites of pain or deal with Ernie myself in any way, it could be as tidy as a special delivery to my doorstep. It could all remain at a distance.

The weight of loss, the weight of silence, The Contradiction, has been growing like a tidal wave… pretty much since I disappeared from the life that I had built, since I fled. Before, I had structured my entire identity around being An Artist. And my entire identity as An Artist included Ernie: I met him at my first art show when I was 17 (he was 25), when he was the first person to buy my artwork. From that point we developed a tense, at arm’s length, off-and-on relationship that centered around my artistic ambitions. I would do anything to become one of the Names that I read in the art books. I fell into a deep obsession, I had to make it happen, this mattered more than anything. He “got” this and fostered it as my purpose, with a seductive encouragement I had never felt before. A pushing of boundaries, a cerebral transgression, the breaking-open of art-as-idea.

I turned eighteen, went away to college, too pricy, didn’t fit, met Nicolas, came back to Monterey one semester later with the goal of transferring to art school at UCLA, where the Names were not just Names but actually belonged to real people who could someday know my name back. Several weeks later, Ernie’s mom was murdered. Southern California, estrangement, drugs and shady boyfriends and domestic violence. After this, Ernie would let himself into my room while I was sleeping and get into my bed. The bizarre power dynamic between us had already been set in place (later I will write about the anonymous emails he wrote me while I was at college), but for some reason this event stands out the most, some kind of turning point. I would coldly flip over, try to ignore him, I was trying to sleep, he was holding my body. No matter what I did, his heavy presence would be there in my bed, I didn’t know how to respond to his grief.

This sounds weird, but despite how much I have changed, despite the fact that I am now married to Nicolas, despite how much I have grown and taken myself apart and reassembled myself according to my own terms, until only a few weeks ago I would find myself lying in bed, feeling like he was still there under the covers. I knew it wasn’t him, it was some metaphor for him, like my artwork in his storage unit, a more-than-metaphor that extended into real space. It wasn’t just him, it was the entire art world, it was the entire identity I had created and then seen crumble, built up within a System where if your Name never made it onto the pages of books, onto the glossy pages of a magazine, if you hadn’t hit certain milestones or been recognized by the right people or in the right forum, you did not matter. You may as well not exist. And at night, in bed, I would lay there silent, and all of this would condense there alongside me, pressing its weight against me.

So a Friday morning, that quote: “Action springs not from thought, but from a readiness for responsibility.” Whatever I am doing isn’t working, I realize. I could no longer go on with that presence in my bed at night. Even after I had gotten out from under it, I had left the System, I had left the abuse, it could find its way there, I was still letting it have power over me, to tell me that I didn’t matter if I was outside of its line of vision. I spent almost two years thinking about this, thinking about how to express this as someone who makes things; I tried to write it into a story but it was too heavy-handed, I am not a victim, he is not a monster. I tried to make it into a book but then it becomes another tool, tool of a book-deal world of success and failure where certain voices get heard over the involuntary silence of countless others. I tried to make it into “Art,” but how is that not playing the game, as if I never left? How can I play the game while I am trying to speak out about the game itself, to speak out against its mechanisms of exclusion and inclusion? Am I playing the game now by saying anything at all?

This is it: The Contradiction. This is what crawls into my bed, this is what I wrestle with every single time I sit down to try to make anything. I have thought and thought and thought, and it has not gone away. If anything, it has taken control of me completely. I have lost my agency.

And so, I realize, I have to confront it head-on. Now that I am back in California I can’t convince myself that it’s far away. I have to deal with it myself. I have to trust myself to enter back into the dynamic for the right reasons. So I find him on Facebook (the only way, these days?) and send a message, “Please call me, same number.” 90 seconds later, my phone rings. I tell him that I need my paintings back. Please get the key. I am tired of carrying this burden around. Do you want to talk when you come up? he asks. I would be open to talking to you – I am looking for reconciliation – but going into it I’d have to know that you wouldn’t ask anything of me, because I’ve already given you enough and had enough taken. My face is bright red. My boundaries are drawn.

The next Friday. I am coming up tomorrow, my friend Emily is driving me, he’d suggested dropping everything off at Justin’s, I could pick it up there. Justin is busy, unresponsive. So I call. I’d rather go straight to the source. I don’t want to “pick up” my artwork—I want to excavate it, to roll the rock away from the tomb. This means, we realize, that he will have to come along, to lead us to the storage unit, to unlock the door; I would see him for the first time since I fled, two years five months. You’ll have a friend there, so you won’t be able to talk? he asks. Even if we were to talk, how do I know you would listen? How do I know that this isn’t a way to reignite the toxic power-play of constant second guesses and mental strong-arming? I’ve changed, I’ve been thinking about this a lot, I am really just ready to listen. …Well then, how about now? An hour passes on the telephone, I speak words I have never uttered, I have no idea if he is hearing me, it seems he is but I can never be sure – but somehow that doesn’t matter anymore. Getting it out there is enough. Getting it out there is all I can do.

He is a person, I am a person, we share an intersecting history of brokenness. I get out of the car and ask for a glass of water. He puts his hands on my shoulders: “Let me just look at you for a second.”

Unrelenting blue as we drive home; the day shines, gorgeous and warm. Artwork takes over the floor of my apartment. I breathe, I feel full. My big yellow painting leans against the wall as a signal of an accomplishment—not a mnemonic device to trigger the loss of a life I no longer live, but a testament to the act of authoring my own recovery. I think of this picture my dad showed me when he got his first laptop; a family photo from 2006. “I got rid of someone,” he said, and I realized who, with the basic iPhoto retouching tool, he had cursorily deleted from the image:

Despite your attempts to erase it, it will never really go away.  You can never get rid of The Contradiction. As long your agency is in question,  it will still find its way into your bed at night. It will still lurk around you like a blurry ghost, haunting you, occupying your thoughts, despite your attempts to ignore it or smooth out its wrinkles internally or deny that part of your identity. It will take some of you along with it.

The best you can do is to face it directly, because it is already a part of you. Address it head-on, even if it won’t listen, even if it can kill you. Because as long as you lay there silently wracking your brain, nothing will change. Because your silence is not a way to escape the game— it is just a different way of playing it. Your silence gives the game permission to go on without you, with its power intact, with your artwork still in its storage.

Filed under: at arm's length, dude get over it Martin, reconciliation as a work of art?, The Contradiction